The word “challenge” conjures up a lot of different connotations: a dare, a provocation, an opposition, a task, a problem. An Art Challenge contains many of these; it’s a kind of dare to yourself, a provocation to make more art, an opposition to the part of you that never finds time for it, a daily task that must be met and problems solved.
I’ve been doing art challenges for a few years now — can’t seem to stay away from them, though I’ve sworn off a couple of times! I’ve done several 30-day challenges, finished some, had to abandon a couple. I’m just winding up the 100 Day Project, and the Zooly Art Challenge, a month-long animal-drawing challenge I started with Melody Peña in July of last year, is coming up again; we’ve also been running a weekly Zooly group since last August. I’ve done Inktober for the last 3 years, the Opus Practice Challenge twice, and did Hourly Comic Day this year.
Art challenges are a good way to jump-start flagging inspiration, develop a daily habit, warm up for other work, or take you out of your comfort zone. Many people use them to create a body of work or a book. I’ve done all of those, and each challenge is different for me, depending where I’m at in my life and work schedule. I’ve learned a lot of stuff, both about art and about myself; I’d like to share some of these things, as well as my favourite pieces from various challenges.
“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” — Orson Welles
First things first, when starting a challenge: decide on your parameters. Give yourself at least a couple of restrictions: medium, size, support type or sketchbook, style, subject matter, prompt words — all good places to start. I’ve used all of these: for the Zooly Challenge it’s primarily subject matter (animals); for the first Opus Practice Challenge I did little cartoons to illustrate the prompt words in a small Moleskine Japanese Album (style, prompts, medium, size, sketchbook); for Inktober last year I did same-size drawings, all in ink, for a spinoff Quadra Cats book (size, subject matter, medium). I always feel more secure when I’ve decided ahead of time what I’m going to do.
Prepare: Gather up your materials ahead of the start date. Gather your reference material ahead of time. Make a space to work and declare it yours, if possible. If not, keep all your stuff in one place, maybe its own special bag or box, easily accessible. If I’m not doing the drawings in an actual book, I like buying one of those black portfolios with the plastic sleeves to keep the drawings in.
Finding time in a busy life: Break down the task into manageable segments; for instance, sketch on one coffee break and ink on another. Find little pieces of time that you’d otherwise be idle or doing something expendable (like looking at Facebook). Hide: go to a coffee shop and turn off the phone. Ignore the internet notifications. Go to your work space if you have one, close the door. This is your time — defend it! You can even set one of your limitations as a certain amount of time, and set a timer.
Don’t wait for inspiration to hit. That’s what prompts are good for, to set you off on your creative journey; another limitation that liberates. If you have trouble thinking of subject matter, use the challenge’s prompts. If you don’t feel imaginative on a particular day, just start doing the first thing that comes to mind with the prompt. It may end up being more exciting than you had expected once you get into it!
Don’t be perfectionistic. Allow yourself the freedom of mind to be imperfect. It’s only about practice, it’s only paper (or whatever you’re using), and the purpose is to get better, not to create a masterpiece. You get points just for showing up, how cool is that!
A challenge can be used to develop ideas for later, too. It forces you to think fast, and not get too precious about the paper you’re covering.
Challenge yourself to learn something, to do something new. Is there some technique you’ve always wanted to try, or get better at? Jake Parker, who started Inktober, did it to make himself practice inking. I’ve used the 100 Day Project to do something I’ve never managed to do: fill up a whole, dedicated sketchbook without flitting about between loose sheets of paper, as well as experimenting with some drawing techniques I haven’t used before. I’m considering a limited-medium challenge for this year’s Zooly (not telling yet because I might chicken out).
Don’t beat yourself up for missing a day! This is one of the most important things I’ve learned. Just pick up on the next day and go on. Thinking you’re going to “catch up” is a recipe for procrastination, and before you know it, you’ve got an overwhelming amount of catch-up to do and it’s stopped being fun. Just accept that some days, life might intervene; forgive yourself, and relax. The challenge is for you, not for anyone else, and stressing and guilting about it negates the purpose of making yourself a safe space to make art. An art challenge is not a competition!
Set your own expectations. One thing I liked about the 100 Day Project was that I realized that I could choose to make it something I could do on a daily basis. I have a habit of biting off more than I can chew (Life! I want it all!) so I took a really hard look at what I felt I could manage at this time without undue stress, and rejected most of the grandiose schemes I’d come up with as being too impractical to fit in with my daily life.
I’m really glad I kept it simple, and even though a couple of times I really didn’t feel like drawing in my sketchbook, and I missed a couple of days just due to life stuff (so my challenge has now got 2 days added to the end, not doubled up with two drawings in a day), the simple parameters allowed me to not feel overwhelmed. I’ve now reached 86 days of drawings and that sketchbook is getting really full — many of its pages are wrinkled from wet media and it won’t even shut any more! They’re not finished, polished works of art, but I’ve posted them all whether I liked them or not. Some will be useful for later work, some are just for keeping my hand in with daily practice. It’s the action of doing something every day that’s the important part.
I hope this is helpful if you decide to take on an art challenge. If you do an internet search, you’ll find that there are art challenges for all kinds of interests. All levels of experience are generally welcome, and I find people incredibly supportive. Generally there is some kind of procedure and location for posting your creations; Facebook groups, Instagram and Twitter tags are the most common. Inktober (October) is probably the most famous, but there are many monthly challenges in other months: MerMay, Junicorn, Dinovember are some to look for. Most challenges have daily prompts, which you can use or ignore; there are also year-round daily challenge groups, particularly on Facebook, that give a prompt in a certain realm of interest (medium, illustration, subject matter).
If you’re up for a challenge, like drawing animals, and would like to improve your skills by doing it daily, here’s where I plug this year’s Zooly Art Challenge — come on over to our page on Facebook and check it out! You can post your work there in each day’s thread, as well as on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #zoolyartchallenge. Here’s our prompt list for this year:
How about you — have you done an art challenge (or many)? What was your experience? Do you know of any good challenges that you’d recommend? Please comment below!